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RCI goes to court to halt inmate's hunger strike

December 16, 1997

RCI goes to court to halt inmate's hunger strike


Staff Writer

State prison officials have obtained a temporary court order allowing them to force-feed a Roxbury Correctional Institution inmate who has been on a hunger strike to protest his prison sentence.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Frederick C. Wright III on Monday issued a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on Monday, according to court records. The order, which expires midnight Dec. 23, allows officials to force Warren R. Stevenson to eat.

Maxine Eldridge, a spokeswoman for the Division of Correction, said Stevenson has cooperated with the order.

Officials said other hunger strikes have been resolved before the state has sought court action.

"This is the first time that we have had to get court action to take care of an inmate," Eldridge said.


According to the complaint filed in court, Stevenson claims he has been on a hunger strike for the past few years. Since being transferred to RCI on March 7, Stevenson has accepted milk, juice, coffee, tea and water but has refused solid food and medical treatment.

Stevenson weighed 121 pounds on June 28. As of Dec. 8, he had withered to 107 pounds.

According to an affidavit filed by Dr. Mohamed Moubarek, a prison doctor, Stevenson collapsed at RCI during a routine check of his weight, blood and urine last Friday. Officials moved him to the MCI infirmary and administered intravenous fluid.

Moubarek said in the affidavit that Stevenson is suffering from severe malnutrition. He suffers from a low heart rate and body temperature, low blood sodium, low blood glucose and other conditions, the affidavit said.

Moubarek predicted Stevenson could suffer "permanent bodily harm" within seven days without adequate nutrition.

"It is my opinion, based upon a reasonable degree of medical probability, that medical intervention is urgently needed," he said in the affidavit.

The case presents a dilemma for prison officials and the court since Maryland law allows mentally competent adults to refuse medical care - even if refusal may result in death - unless there are compelling state interests.

Stevenson, according to the affidavit, underwent a psychiatric evaluation in July that pronounced him calm and lucid.

But according to the complaint, no Maryland cases address the question of whether the state has the right to intervene in the case of a competent prison inmate who engages in a hunger strike.

Eldridge said the state contends that the court should make that decision since the court sentences prisoners.

"It is the commissioner's policy that it is up to the court to determine whether an inmate should continue actions that are detrimental to his health," she said.

Although prisoners do not enjoy the full range of constitutional rights, civil libertarians said they should not have to give up the right not to eat.

Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said hunger strikes are a form of free speech.

"If they're mentally competent and choosing to do it, it is a form of protest. In a way, (force-feeding is) a way to silence that protest," she said.

Jenni Gainsborough, a spokeswoman for the ACLU's National Prison Project, said the issue of hunger strikes has come before courts across the country "from time to time." She said the courts have consistently found that the state has a right to force-feed inmates, although she added the ACLU disagrees with that interpretation.

"One certainly hates to see someone starve themselves to death. But on the other hand, we don't believe that prisoners renounce all rights to privacy," she said.

Stevenson was sentenced in Baltimore County Circuit Court to 25 years in prison in 1988 for burglary, according to court records. He was also give a concurrent one-year sentence for a weapons charge.

The state can ask the court to renew the temporary order before it expires next week. The complaint filed on Monday also seeks a permanent injunction. But Eldridge said that may not be necessary since Stevenson so far has complied with the order.

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